By Mónica Delgado
From some time now, filmmaker’s masterclass in festivals have become New Age conferences for the ones interested in making movies, especially young people, a sort of DIY, mixed with certain spiritual pedagogy and entrepreneur culture, which is becoming patent in the testimonies and stories of filmmakers who seek to leave evidence of their profession. Thus, the filmmakers become model entities, materializing certain steps which took them to the top of film history. It’s not about transmitting technical or theoretical knowledge, but to talk about certain strategies of overcoming obstacles, where cinema looks like a personal goal, where success is paramount (meaning: festival recognition, funding, etc). New ages stuff. Did Zhang Yimou masterclass escape that? It was diffferent, yes.
This year, Zhang Yimou was the stellar guest of the third edition at Pingyao Film Festival. This visit not only allowed to give visibility of the necessity of the festival to reaffirm and give homage to one of the most emblematic filmmakers of Chinese cinema of the last thirty years, but also helped to stablish correspondences between the new generations of filmmakers and the young people interested in making cinema with this example of great international projection and big scale production.
Yimou, also, was born in Shanxi province, a region where this festival takes place. Thus, this return not only has a cultural value, but becomes an inspiration for the development of filmmaking in this territory. This is why it wasn’t strange that Yimou convened a big mass of adolescents and young people interested in making movies. Anyhow, in the history of masterclasses, this filmmaker has achieved to transform the conversation between filmmakers, since in the morning of the event; another great celebrity was present, filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke, in an urgent call. People want to know and learn from their filmmakers.
The director of Red Sorghum or House of Flying Daggers remarked in his interventions, in fron of hundreds of attendees (so much that the initial auditorium had to be changed for a bigger one) that “Cinema is something that once it starts, it never stops. When I was a young person of my generation, we had a belief and certainty: we would never lose time. This is why I became one of the busiest persons in film industry. Every year I would undertake a new production, if I didn’t, I wasted a year. I also made myself available to different new project, opportunities of work. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate enough to dedicate myself to this, because, from all the opportunities I had, the ones I loved the most were the ones related to cinema”, remarked the filmmaker after a question by Jia Zhang-ke, the director of Ash Is Purest White or Platform.
Yimou also mentioned that felt attracted to cinema from a very young age, since he always wanted to tell stories to others, in different contexts, forms and narratives. “I still feel that making good cinema is a permanent and distant objective of mine. This is my way of thinking. I always question myself, even now, as much as many young people question themselves too. Is my new film better than the last one? Will my new film be good? I think making good cinema is something important to me and that’s why I set the bar very high. As long as I direct more film, it’ll become more complicated to make good films in the future. It’s easy to make a film, but it’s difficult to make a really good one. Many people has different criteria about what they want to see: I set my criteria to pose the objective to be a better filmmaker, I’m not planning to stop in a particular place, and I’m ready to move forward, never mind the path, styles or equipment. Creation is part of my life”.
The filmmaker touched the audience’s hearts with the following: “Filmmaking is an internal call that makes us move forward. We don’t do it for fame or fortune; we do it simply because we love it. Many people who have recently began to make films say: “this is such a tough job, why do I want to devote myself to this?” I think that many filmmakers have heard the same thing. But this is a flame that is always in our hearts; even if our films aren’t very visible or if not many people watch it. Besides these frustrations, the flame in the heart of the filmmaker is always burning, and that’s the spirit of cinema”. Direct to the soul.
Jia Zhang-ke asked him about his first films, indicated that he was able to notice that the excesses of creativity and passion followed one path, and the maturity of those, another. How did you train yourself? Which movies did you watch to obtain this sophistication, even in the first films you directed? Yimou answered that in these years of study, university was a really open place, and teachers return to their activities after the Cultural Revolution. “In the four years I was in there, I learned many basic techniques from our teachers, but really, I was more influenced by a reformed society and the different changes of context, that impacted me a lot. For my first films, I tended to show some level of maturity; this has to do with a couple of things: in the first place, this is the time we lived in, a period in which China was rebuilding itself and people were reflecting about what had just happened. Also, there was a shared interest in the fields of thought and culture, so art naturally flourished: not only cinema, but also fine arts and poetry. Everything was a result of the moment we lived in, it made us think more than other times, like the present one”, said the filmmakers.
Yimou continued and said that these first films had this impulse due to a second reason, his personality “I’d rather die before stop surprising people. So I always searched for creative ways to make the things I did. I wanted to tell different stories, in different ways. Plus, the audiences in my films, I tried not to think about things like the casting or the technical difficulties so I could be really creative. It’s difficult to be creative, since nowadays everything has been tried by other person. But I’ve been pretty stubborn trying to work on my images, my music. For example, when I made Red Sorghum, we had a trumpet solo in the score, and I asked the composer to have more trumpets, a big number. He replied that that would be too noisy. I said noisy? Good, let’s do it. After we produced the music, I found myself in this ambient of dozens of trumpets screaming like a crowd in a big and busy era: that was the true form that I was looking for, in order to touch my audience. Things like that allowed me to show my true self”. Then, an ovation came.
Yimou talked about the actual cinema of young filmmakers in China, saying “I always pay attention to the first films of newcomers, because in those films you can see who they really are. And those films also show me the main characteristics of those filmmakers.
Also, the Chinese filmmaker said he didn’t want to be a master “I only want to remain young at heart. Even at my age it’s difficult to make a perfectly mature film. Since I can’t do it, I tried to do something different. I make different films with unique features, that’s how I see my work.
Here’s a fragment of the conversation about his films Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and The Story of Qui Ju (1992)?
Jia Zhang-ke: In your next film, Codename Cougar, you used a closed space, the cabin of a plane, something which is difficult to achieve. However, you manage to do it perfectly. After your next film, Raise the Red Lantern, you chose another closed space: the courtyard of a mansion, where you managed to produce rich images and visual effects, discovering the beautiful architecture of the place, even promoting local tourism. I wanted to know: what do you do to the space to increase the beauty of a place and avoid visual boredom?
Zhan Yimou: The original novel was placed in the south; however, I was more familiarized with Shanxi’s province, since I knew that well. I was fascinated with the courtyard architecture and I decided to make the film there, because I told myself “if I don’t make a film here, others will”. I decided to make the story in that space, relocating the context of the south in the north. That’s why the author of the original novel was a little upset, because he thought I removed that southern spice to the story. But it’s true, there were few tourists there, and the access to certain places was restricted. That’s why we needed to think on how we wanted to portray the place, and I decided to set on the second floor terrace, trying to imagine the image I wanted to create and the conversation that I wanted to conceive. I adapted the story of the atmosphere in symbolisms, introducing the routine of lighting and putting off lanterns in the night, creating a daily cycle. I also told my DP not to move the camera at all, so we could create a static shot that allowed me to show a particular style.
What we saw in that film was only a Lady with her servant, the little things, subtleties that happen during those days are represented in a symbolic way, searching for the images and styles that suited the story better. When you compare Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern you see two completely different things. The first one is about the wild and freedom, the second one about suppression, rituals and a search for humanity.
I think nowadays I would’ve been a little less extreme, since despite always searching for creativity, the more films I make, the more preoccupations I have, so I’d have avoided the extremes. But in that moment I chose to be bold, chose to be extreme and not that careful, so I developed two different movies.
Jia Zhang-ke: Raise the Red Lantern is a very beautiful film involved in the form and context of old China, but after that, you shot The Story of Qiu Ju, a fiction in a realist documentary style in the context of the new china, in 1990, which was something revelatory, since documentaries in that time were more oriented to information and avoiding that China. What motivated to use that style for Qiu Ju (1992)?
Zhang Yimou: The original story of that film was written by a very famous screenwriter. We adapted it to a very realist story of China. The thing is that this had been done before, so, a night before filming, we met with the team to talk about which style did we wanted in particular for that film, and we came up with the documentary style. We were very encouraged with that decision; we used a 16mm camera in a very particular way and hidden cameras and microphones to produce that particular style and angles. So we started to film without a script, which was very hard for the screenwriter, because for him his work was being scrapped, but we decided to make our truth, in our hidden cinema style, in those places in China. I wanted to hide the camera to find the truth. I hid cameras in cardboard boxes with other elements to give that sensation of veracity. It was a very unpredictable environment. Plus, I had to deal with all the locals, to make them used to this style of filmmaking, use them as camera people, directors of photography, filming them all. That’s how I got the ambient I needed.